Patrick M. Heffernan, Principal Analyst and Practice Manager, has strong opinions on what it takes to conduct useful competitive intelligence research, and in this blog, he dives into three steps for producing research that will support your business goals and help you win in your industry.
Competitive intelligence (CI) research refers to the gathering and disseminating of analysis about market and industry trends, company performance, and competitive landscapes. Companies use CI research to support business decision making and seek a competitive advantage.
At TBR, this type of research starts with identifying key competitors and understanding their strategies, measuring their performance, and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, within the context of market trends and emerging opportunities. Our research helps clients anticipate changes in their competitive landscape and make more informed strategy decisions.
With decades of experience in the intelligence space, I have strong opinions on what it takes to conduct useful competitive intelligence research, and in this blog, I dive into three steps for producing research that will support your business goals and help you win in your industry.
3 Steps for Building a Successful Competitive Intelligence Research Program
Step 1: Identify What You Don’t Understand and Why You Need an Answer
Read this blog carefully and pay close attention to the first piece of advice. Identifying what you don’t understand and why you need an answer will be critical to a successful and sustained CI research program. Good CI starts with knowing what the questions are — and behind those questions lurks the “why.” What difference would it make to know the answer? Good to know or a key piece to a looming decision?
If you sense some urgency here, that’s a good thing. All CI research should be conducted with a sense of mission, a sense that the most insightful and helpful intel nuggets and follow-on competitive analysis are right there, waiting to be uncovered. Cadence in deliverables and patience in competitive intelligence gathering will be necessarily built into a CI research program, but the underlying essence should be urgency.
Step 2: Think Long-term
Now that you’ve identified your key intelligence questions and understand your stakeholders needs, take a giant step back from the mission-critical urgency and start thinking longer-term. What foundational research do you need to support consistent and meaningful competitive analysis? If that research already exists (like, if some company, say TBR, is publishing in-depth quarterly assessments of your key competitors and alliance partners), go get it.
Every top intel shop gathers as many sources as possible, knowing no single source has every answer you need, every time. As a best practice, once your competitive research program has been up and running for a bit, do an assessment of your sources. Leaning too much on one set of data or analysis creates blind spots and risks making you irrelevant. If I can get my competitive intelligence analysis from the Financial Times, why do I need you?
Step 3: Find the Right Cadence of CI Deliverables and Stick With It
So, you were going full speed with mission-critical urgency and now you’re sensing some dread of being replaced by a combination of the Economist Intelligence Unit and ChatGPT. Let’s use cadence and quality to find a happy middle ground, where your competitive intelligence research program can hum along smartly. By talking to stakeholders (and be sure to include alliance managers here) and understanding what they read now and what they expect from you, set a consistent cadence of CI deliverables: weekly snapshots, monthly market landscapes and quarterly trends reports, maybe. Find the right cadence and stick with it.
When the intelligence streams run low (or dry!), engage with your stakeholders to uncover new key intelligence questions (KIQs) or areas where your support hasn’t landed yet. A consistent cadence and frequent efforts to seek feedback will feed that second imperative: quality. The best competitive intelligence isn’t the most recent, the most deeply insightful or the most secret. It’s CI that comes from a trusted source. And building trust comes from being dependable, listening and taking feedback, all of which require time. Set your operational cadence to that middle ground between mission-critical urgency and slow and steady intelligence gathering, and then bring your stakeholders competitive analysis that they inherently trust and value, because they knew it was coming and coming from you.
Conducting a high-functioning CI research program requires constantly toggling between meeting immediate needs and nurturing foundational research. Know your stakeholders, hone your KIQs and consistently deliver. At one point in my career, I had an adviser come into my office every morning at 10 with binders of intel — literally, binders of printed intel. I learned to trust that anything he said I should read I absolutely had to read. He knew my schedule, what my bosses had read and what was on their schedules, and what people across the intel space were talking about. I trusted him because he showed up every day and knew what I needed. Make his example your goal when thinking about how to conduct your CI research.